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Understanding Inverted Markets: Definition, Dynamics, and Strategies

Last updated 03/19/2024 by

Alessandra Nicole

Edited by

Fact checked by

An inverted market in futures arises when near-term maturity contracts are priced higher than those in the future, typically due to short-term disruptions in commodity supply. Contango and backwardation describe how futures contracts converge toward the spot price as expiration approaches.

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What is an inverted market?

In the context of futures markets, an inverted market occurs when the spot price and near-maturity contracts surpass the prices of far-maturity contracts. The spot price refers to the prevailing price at which an asset can be bought or sold, while maturity indicates the termination date of the transaction or financial instrument.

Understanding inverted markets

An inverted market may stem from various factors, primarily short-term supply disruptions leading to price escalations. Conversely, if future demand is anticipated to wane, prices are likely to decline.
Both inverted and normal markets juxtapose futures prices at different maturities. While an inverted market witnesses futures prices decreasing over time, a normal market observes futures prices ascending over time.
In a futures market, inversion occurs when the spot price exceeds that of a contract expiring in the near term compared to a contract expiring further into the future. Conversely, in a typical futures market, prices for futures contracts increase with greater time to maturity.
Futures contracts are derivative financial instruments obligating parties to buy or sell an asset at a predetermined future date and price.

Contango and backwardation

Contango and backwardation delineate how futures contracts converge toward the spot price as expiration approaches. Contango occurs when futures prices decline to align with the spot price, while normal backwardation transpires when futures prices escalate to meet the spot price. A futures curve assumes an inverted shape when the spot price exceeds future prices.

Commodities in inverted markets

The primary cause of market inversion is often transient disruptions in the supply of the underlying commodity. Factors such as OPEC export restrictions for crude oil or natural disasters impacting production facilities can spur inverted markets. Agricultural commodities may face shortages due to adverse weather conditions, while financial futures might encounter short-term price squeezes from alterations in trade policies, taxes, or interest rates.

Carrying costs

In non-inverted markets, near-month delivery contracts are typically priced lower than later-month delivery contracts. This discrepancy is attributed to the expenses associated with immediate delivery and holding of the underlying commodity until a later date. Carrying costs encompass interest, insurance, storage expenses, and opportunity costs. A market is considered to be in full carry when the cost of a futures contract equals the spot price plus the complete carrying cost.

Inverted market example

Since 2020, certain commodity futures have consistently exhibited inversion. For instance, Brent Crude futures have been in “super backwardation” since 2022. Agricultural commodities like corn, soybeans, sugar, and Kansas wheat have witnessed similar phenomena. Data from May 2023 illustrates the prevalence of inverted futures pricing for Brent Crude through March 2024.

What is the difference between a spot price and futures price?

The spot price denotes the current market price at which a security, commodity, or currency can be immediately bought or sold, contingent upon a specific time and place. Conversely, a futures price represents the agreed-upon price for the future delivery of the asset.

What does backwardation mean for investors?

Backwardation, characterized by lower futures prices, implies that the current price may be inflated, indicating an anticipation of spot price decline as futures contracts approach expiration.

What are types of futures contracts?

Futures contracts encompass various categories, including commodity futures (e.g., crude oil, natural gas, corn, wheat), currency futures (e.g., euro), precious metals futures (e.g., gold, silver), and U.S. Treasury futures (e.g., bonds, securities).
Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider.
  • Opportunities for profit during market disruptions
  • Potential for heightened volatility, allowing for more significant gains
  • May provide valuable insights into market sentiment and future price movements
  • Increased risk of losses due to heightened volatility
  • Market may revert to a normal state, leading to potential losses for investors
  • Requires careful risk management and strategic planning

Frequently asked questions

What are the potential risks associated with trading in an inverted market?

Trading in an inverted market carries certain risks, including increased volatility and the potential for losses if the market reverts to a normal state. Investors should exercise caution and employ risk management strategies to mitigate these risks.

How can investors take advantage of an inverted market?

Investors may seek opportunities to profit from an inverted market by implementing strategies such as short-selling or utilizing options contracts. However, it is essential to conduct thorough research and analysis to assess the market’s dynamics and potential outcomes accurately.

Key takeaways

  • An inverted market arises when near-term futures contracts are priced higher than those in the future.
  • Market inversion often results from short-term disruptions in commodity supply.
  • Contango and backwardation describe how futures contracts converge toward the spot price as expiration approaches.
  • Futures contracts span various categories, including commodities, currencies, precious metals, and securities.

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